Friday, March 28, 2014

How to Be a Delightful Dinner Guest in Berlin

Moving across the ocean doesn't change who you are, at least not overnight. It's a fresh start, and a chance to transform yourself into the person you want to be. But as of now, I'm still the awkward girl in the corner daydreaming about hugging the one creature who will never judge me. Of course, a few drinks help!

How to Buy Furniture in Berlin... when you're poor.

Everyone in Berlin buys their furniture at IKEA. Everyone. Seriously. I think it's a law.

But if you want to like, be a rebel and stuff, get on Craigslist. It's as if there's an alley out back of IKEA where dudes in trenchcoats are selling everything for 2/3 of the price. Just scatter if you hear the Funf-Null rolling in.

So it's not like that at all, really. BUT, Craigslist Berlin is a great way to get all that IKEA crap for much less from people who are moving out or moving on. You just have to haul it yourself. Walking 20 blocks carrying a really heavy table might seem like it's not worth it at the time. You might start to feel like you've really made a Big Mistake. Until you get it home and feel that sense of accomplishment, like you earned it. And you can still afford food that day.

Or you can arrange for transport. In fact, one great tip is to look under Dienstleistungen > Umzug (Services > Move) - there you'll find a bunch of private moving vans for hire. For 20 or 40 Euros you can get a the same furniture delivery service that would cost at least 60 at IKEA. #ProTip. (I hate people who say #ProTip. They're just the worst.)

We bought an awesome big white table that would have been at least 50 euros in store, but was only 15 from a nice Italian dude. Shannon also found an oddly cute little green side table and a handmade wooden stool. And - a washing machine for 50 euros that does indeed still work! Phew.

So, while we did buy certain things new at IKEA - like a bed, because sleeping on a second-hand bed is probably not the best life choice one can make - we scored some great stuff from Craigslist and saved a lot of money.

All that being said, half of our furniture is still cardboard boxes covered with pieces of fabric. Because we're poor. But we're happy! (Except when the cardboard "tabletop" flips up in the air if you put your cup too far towards the edge of the smaller "base" box underneath and your tea transforms your delicately constructed "coffee table" into a sagging soggy lump. Whoops.)*

* This hasn't actually happened... yet.

Perk of picking up Craigslist furniture - you see interesting new parts of the city.
Whoever authorized these murals on the local Fire Station has a unique sense of humor.
He seems unconcerned by the flames raging behind him...
And a perk of taking the bus to IKEA - riding on the upper deck for great views of the neighborhood.
A glimpse of the massive, shuttered Tempelhof Airport building.
Every comforter at IKEA has a helpful temperature gauge on the label.
50 euros + 1 van + 1 Irishman + 1 exhausted Lilly + 1 exhausted Ekedal = Waschmaschine
This photo is like porn for plumbers.
BAUHAUS is like the Home Depot of Germany. Fortunately, there's one just 10 minutes walking from our place. So, our DIY washing machine hook-up problems were quickly solved by a helpful Bauhaus employee and a 10 euro water pump wrench.

Saying Goodbye to Our First Home in Berlin

It was an "altbau". It was cold. It was quiet until the church bell rang. It was desolate yet near. It was expensive. It was exhausting. It was posh, with graffiti.

It was where we learned to drink beer as a meal. It was where we acclimated to the cold temperature and cold people. It was where I wore my big coat every day. It was where I was frightened and where I was invigorated. 

You didn't need to know which way was north, only which way the steeple was.

The bell rang at 8am, noon, and 6pm.
So few people compared to where we are now
In Berlin, beautiful, possibly fancy flats hide behind the tagged doors. 
The graffiti shouldn't make you worry, it should just remind you of which city you live in. Artists. Everywhere.

Details like this aren't found in the newer buildings. It's one thing we'll definitely miss.
The daunting task is before us... 
By the time we got to the 4th floor... that was it. We were done.
Our vision was blurred. I mean, this HAS to be our floor, right?
And we're hooooommme! How long before I stop seeing spots?
I waited for Rahan as he went up all by his lonesome. He often carried the heavy loads and the burden of multiple trips up and down the stairs, just so I wouldn't have to. This spooky looking guy is the best in the world. Really. It's in the dictionary. Go on. Fact check it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Moving In

We live in Berlin! Not temporarily on a short term lease, but actually in a real apartment that's ours for as long as we want. And in a fantastic neighborhood in the pulsing heart of the city. This is what we've been working towards since the moment we decided to move to Berlin. It's intense, exciting, and emotional.

We enjoyed the flat we were in for the last two months, and it was hard in some ways to say goodbye to it. It is a dramatic place with so much history embedded in its walls. It also exists in its own little universe, perched five floors above a street of rushing traffic on one side and quiet courtyards on the other, with the passage of time marked only by the sun and the clanging bells of the neighboring church. This was by turns inspiring and isolating. So we became fond of it, but also have been looking forward to feeling more connected to the energy of the city.

And now we find ourselves right in the midst of that flowing energy. Our new apartment is just three floors above one of the main arteries of Neukölln. The space is filled with light from walls of west-facing windows,
and all the bustling restaurants and shops and markets we could want are literally just below us or steps away.

At the moment the apartment is very bare except for our suitcases and the few pieces of new furniture (mostly assembled) we could afford from Ikea, plus a giant pile of cardboard boxes that it all came in. One essential (among many) that we're missing is a bathroom mirror.

You see, in Berlin most of the apartments come with nothing in them, just empty rooms with plumbing and electricity. People buy their own lighting fixtures, appliances, bathroom hardware and mirrors, and often even entire kitchens, right down to the sink and cabinetry. "Luckily" we found a place we can "afford" that has a beautiful almost-new fully equipped kitchen, and only needs: ceiling fixtures for every light in the flat (including the dangling bulb above the bathroom sink, but with the exception of a lovely unremovable fixture... in the closet); treatments for every window; shower rod & curtain; towel racks and hooks; toilet roll holder; and most unexpected - a bathroom mirror. We can see the marks and spackle on the walls where the previous tenant had installed these things. 

Where we lived in California - San Francisco and LA - we had learned to take for granted that most of these things would be provided by the landlord in a new apartment. The only difference between SF and LA is that in SF it's customary for the apartment to include a refrigerator, whereas in LA tenants buy their own refrigerators and take them with them when they move.

For us, having arrived in Berlin with only our luggage and computers, making an empty apartment feel like a home is a costly challenge. And you literally have to only buy what you can afford right this second, since all stores here, even Ikea, don't take credit cards. But it's also an amazing chance to redesign our lifestyle. And there is something so very fun and gratifying about putting together a home, piece by piece. Besides, we've been meaning to cut down on our debt. Apparently, Germany thinks we should, too.

We don't actually know what Ikea is like in the states, but we were not prepared for Ikea Berlin. First of all, public transit doesn't go straight to it. You have to take a train to a bus and then walk past gas stations and McDonald's and cross a massive American-sized parking lot to reach the imposing entrance. There was a stream of shoppers converging on this point, and they stream is channeled in and up to the second level labyrinth of showrooms. There are arrows on the floor directing you to walk in one direction, which takes you in a circuitous loop through each 'room' - living, kitchen, bedroom, and so forth.

We, apparently the rebels, scrunched our lips and walked in the opposite direction (I mean, everyone really walks around the entire loop just to get to the kitchen section if they only come in to buy a ladle?!). 

So, then you're supposed to write down the item numbers of the things you want and show that to a customer service representative at the information desk... Or wait, no, you write down the shelf number and go downstairs and pull the box from the correct aisle... Or maybe you give your slip of paper to someone down there and then they get it for you... Or maybe, umm...

Well, obviously we didn't quite understand the system right away.

In any case, we successfully picked out some stuff, arranged for it to be delivered, and managed to pay with only three or ten embarrassing "Sprechen Sie Englisch?" moments.

On Friday, we woke up excited to get over to the new place and finally receive our keys from the property manager. The appointment was for 12 noon, but the manager that the realtor sent was convinced that the appointment had been for 11 am. He was a little annoyed but polite, and gave us the full orientation anyway, and we didn't hold back on asking all of the necessary questions even though he was trying to rush. This brings us to an illuminating moment.

The neighborhood we've moved to, Neukölln, is a heavily Turkish neighborhood (and, we think, Persian, Lebanese, and others). We have been curious about the relationship between this community and the white Germans. We know that this is a relatively liberal country, and Berlin especially so, but we've heard hints about the tensions over immigration as well. Our building is around the corner from a mosque and Muslim cultural center, and the families living in our building seem to be mostly Turkish.

The property manager, though, was white, and does not live in the building. And when we asked him about the cleaning service for the common areas of the building - because there was the smell of urine in the lower stairwell - he wrinkled his nose and squinted his eyes and said, "The people who live here are dirty. They are pigs!" Whether he wanted us to or not, we understood what he meant by that. It was awkward after that, he definitely sensed that we didn't share his racism.

We were shocked and taken aback, and it left a nasty feeling hanging over the otherwise wonderful moment of taking over our new flat. All the other Berliners we've met have not indicated any such attitudes. They project a tolerant and international vibe. Hopefully this guy - older and clearly more conservative - was a rare exception.

We are both excited to live in such a diverse neighborhood, and to be immersed in not just German Berlin culture but Turkish Berlin as well. The food on our street is especially tantalizing. There's a Turkish bakery next door that looks amazing! This atmosphere is exactly what we want, to learn from and be inspired.

Now we just need to finish furnishing and equipping the apartment and, most importantly (for work) get our internet service set up. Fingers crossed that it all goes smoothly and we still have a bank account when it's over.

As an aside, the day we moved in (Saturday) also marked eleven years since the death of Rahsan's father. Deerhawk loved Europe - he spent a year in the 60s vagabonding across the continent - and he would have been so thrilled by what we are doing now. That thought is very affirming and poignant.

Now... for some pictures!

                     Our keiz (hood)

                    We are thrilled!


            IKEA, how we loathe you.

       Shopping for a mattress...Heyyyy

      The elusive measuring cups!!! NO 
        STORE HAD THESE. Seriously.

        The warehouse/checkout floor. 
     We had no idea this was here until 
                       the end.

  There were about 15 checkout lines...

                        So sunny!

          You can see through from the 
      kitchen to the bedroom! It's going 
              to be soooo much fun!

              Such a special moment

"A Winter's Day" - Our First Taste of Berlin's Art Scene

On Thursday night we went to the opening of a three-day pop-up art gallery in eastern Neukolln. We were invited by one of the exhibiting artists, a photographer named Vytautas Serys ( We know him through Meetup, and he's part of the photography group that Shannon participates in (as mentioned in previous posts). 

The event was in a maze-like complex of buildings next to a canal. There seemed to be multiple event spaces tucked away here. There was a raucous party going on in a building above the main gate, with Middle Eastern music blaring and women in headscarves coming in and out. But further back, in a sort of empty seeming building, there was a staircase dotted with candles leading us upstairs to a big open space that had been converted into this temporary gallery.

The theme was "A Winter's Day". A quirky addition was the not so strict "20s theme" dress code. There was a mix of paintings, drawings, sculpture and photography on display, plus a live band and a bar, so the place was loud and lively and filled up fast. We had mixed reactions to the artworks - some were quite interesting but others didn't move us (normal for any gallery, of course). Nevertheless, it was a fun time and a peek into the Berlin art scene, of which we still know little but are eager to learn. <3
A print of a painting made from dust and water. By Blaz Kutin.

A few of Vytas's photographs. His snowy photos were taken all over the globe, but some were from a very recent trip to Antarctica. 
Vytautas Serys -

More photographs from Vytas.
All of the beautiful glasswork was by Thor Karlsen.
Thor Karlsen
Thor Karlsen

Sculpture by Frederique Lanquetin.